Lessons learned in Xiamen, a primer:
Our two-day trip to Bangkok to see friends was supposed to end in a flight back to Macau, but the flight was cancelled because of a typhoon. So, we walked into the office of the Thai budget airline we were flying and asked where else they flew in China. The answer? “Xiamen. Next flight leaves in an hour.” “Great,” Colin said, and changed our tickets. At which point, I opened up the Rough Guide to find Xiamen on the map. Oh, so that’s where we’re going, I thought. Which brings me to
Lesson One: You can’t get what you want, so hope you like what you get.
Traveling through China with no grasp of spoken or written Chinese quickly brings you to a land of zero control and constant surprise, with sometimes wonderful consequences. For example, our first night in Xiamen, we walk into a street café at midnight and point to line in our phrasebook – “What are your local specialties?” An hour later, full of freshly killed (trust me) frog, eel, clams, and fish, we we’re delighted. It wasn’t what we had planned to eat, necessarily, but it was wonderful.
Lesson Two: When in doubt, follow everybody else.
There is a ferry from Xiamen to the nearby Gulangyu Island, a pretty and popular tourist spot full of colonial architecture. When Colin and I reach the dock, we (at my urging) follow the (rare) English sign saying “Gulangyu Island Ferry.” We end up on a ferry with perhaps three other people. Next to us is a ferry with perhaps one hundred people. I start to wonder if we’re on the wrong ferry. A new ferry arrives next to us. Tons of people start streaming on. I wonder more anxiously. At this point, a man on our ferry hands us a pair of binoculars and communicates that we are on a 40-minute ferry ride to look at Taiwan through binoculars. In the remnants of a typhoon. At which point we leave and go follow everybody else.
Lesson Three: Chinese TV is nuts.
The English-language programming is edited so poorly that it’s difficult to follow a movie you’ve already seen and is being broadcast in English. The Chinese programming has fascinating ads for the Community Party featuring violinists in red-sequined bikinis and beautiful young women singing a pop song about the wonders of the CCP, as images of the Forbidden City swirl in the background. Although, silly as I find it, I have to admit the US invented the patriotic bikini, so I probably shouldn’t be talking.